It shouldn’t have taken too long. Bellinger won that MVP award, cementing his status as a superstar three years ago this week. He is 27 years old. It was the first of his career. Choosing to keep him must have been a formality.
But because Bellinger has fallen so far from that peak over the past three seasons, the Dodgers don’t know if he’s worth paying what he’s expected to earn through arbitration in 2023.
In the end, the Dodgers decided on Bellinger, who has been plagued by injuries for the past two years, and decided not to offer him a contract for next season, making him a free agent. The club did not offer contracts to outfielder Luke Williams and infielder Edwin Rios.
“Obviously, it’s been a unique path for Cody as he’s battled through injuries and worked diligently to return to his All-Star-caliber performance over the past few years,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “However, it didn’t turn out as we all expected or expected, and therefore, we had to take the difficult decision not to tender.”
According to MLB Trade Rumors, Bellinger, who earned $17 million in 2022, was expected to receive an $18-million salary for 2023 via arbitration. It’s rare for players to take a pay cut through the arbitration process even after objectively bad seasons.
While admitting the $233-million competitive equity tax cap was a factor in the decision, Friedman confirmed the Dodgers will continue to re-sign Bellinger. But they now have to bid against 29 other clubs in free agency.
The team had two other options for Bellinger before Friday’s deadline: trade him or sign him to a lower-cost contract to avoid arbitration.
Other clubs see Bellinger’s potential as enticing. They showcase an elite talent two years removed from major shoulder surgery. But they weren’t willing to give up much in a trade to pay Bellinger $18 million next season, when they could wait to sign him in free agency.
A deal is not always possible before the deadline; Bellinger should have several suitors vying for his services as a free agent.
“We had a conversation [agent] Scott [Boras] And with other teams,” Friedman said. “Obviously, a non-tender means we’re not lined up for anything. But it is difficult to go beyond that.
Center field is one of the thinnest positions in the majors in 2022. remove Aaron Judge He played only center field for the New York Yankees out of necessity and will return to right field next season — and Brandon Nimmo’s 5.4 fWAR was the highest at the position. It ranked 20th overall. Seattle Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez was second among center fielders. Bellinger’s 1.7 fWAR, buoyed by his defensive prowess, ranks 12th among 14 qualified center fielders.
Nimmo, never an All-Star, is expected to command a contract north of $100 million as the top center fielder in free agency this winter. Rodriguez was named AL Rookie of the Week this week and is viewed as a future superstar. But the position lacks depth. Good everyday center fielders are valuable commodities, and many teams are expected to deploy them this season.
The Dodgers’ other in-house options for center fielder include Trace Thompson, Chris Taylor and James Outman.
Thompson was a surprise contributor after the Dodgers acquired him from the Detroit Tigers in June for cash, but he is 31 and has yet to appear in more than 80 games in a major league season. Taylor played just 10 games in center field and his defense regressed last season while batting .221 with 160 strikeouts in 454 plate appearances. Outman’s major league career spanned four games.
Bellinger, despite his recent offensive woes, has been a fan favorite in Los Angeles, providing top-notch defense and rebounding ability in the batter’s box. Finding a suitable replacement is not as easy as it may seem at first.
Bellinger has dealt with injuries since his MVP campaign — most notably a labrum problem in his right shoulder that required major surgery in November 2020 and a broken fibula in April 2021 — but his offensive slump remains puzzling. Three years ago, the question would have been whether the Dodgers could lock Bellinger up with a long-term contract extension before testing free agency.
He was already a two-time All-Star and had a rookie of the year award on his resume. He hit .305 with 47 home runs and beat out Christian Yelich for MVP with a 1.035 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Bellinger led the NL in bWAR and fWAR. He earned a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove for his work in right field.
The Dodgers looked to build around the cornerstone of a young franchise. Over the next three seasons, Bellinger became one of the worst hitters in Major League Baseball.
His .203 batting average was third worst in the majors during that span. His .648 OPS was sixth from the bottom. His 78 wRC+ is the fourth-lowest mark among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances.
His most productive season of the three was the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, when he batted .239 with 12 home runs and a .789 OPS in 56 games. The numbers represent a significant drop, but he’s one of several stars in the majors who have slumped in a strange season. Meanwhile, his defense in center field was outstanding.
That October, Bellinger hit three home runs with a .911 OPS in 12 games through the National League Championship Series. His third home run gave the Dodgers a one-run lead in Game 7 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves, completing a comeback in the seventh inning. It was a season-changing swing. Bellinger and Kike Hernandez smashed forearms so hard that Bellinger dislocated his right shoulder.
Bellinger, in immediately obvious pain, stayed in the game and did not miss any time during the World Series. Despite Bellinger — who was the team’s designated hitter in Game 4 — going three for 22 in the series, the Dodgers defeated the Tampa Rays in six games to win the championship. He underwent arthroscopic labrum surgery the following month and returned for the start of the 2021 season, but his struggles worsened.
Bellinger landed on the injured list three times in 2021, playing in just 95 games during the regular season. He batted .165 with a .542 OPS, poor numbers by any standard.
Yet he was one of the Dodgers best hitters in the postseason, batting .353 with a .906 OPS in 12 games. Bellinger had an RBI single against the San Francisco Giants in Game 5 of the National League Division Series and a three-run home run against the Braves in Game 3 of the NLCS. He became a star again. He is not one in 2022.
Instead, Bellinger batted .219 with 150 strikeouts and a .654 OPS in 144 games. The Dodgers gave him opportunities to turn things around, making him his everyday center fielder until September when they began benching him against left-handed pitchers.
Then, in a surprise move, the team opted to bench him against the right-handed starter who faced ejection Game 4 of the NLDS against the San Diego Padres. Bellinger exited in a pinch-hit appearance in the eighth inning of the Dodgers’ season-ending loss.
A few days later, Bellinger was back working out three times a week at the Dodgers’ spring training facility in Arizona. On Friday, Friedman called Bellinger to tell him the bad news. He called Bellinger a “total bias” and a “class act” during their conversation, an incomprehensible end to a tenure that reached rarefied heights three years ago.
“Total coffee junkie. Tv ninja. Unapologetic problem solver. Beer expert.”